So it’s the day after one of the best days I’ve ever had on a bike. The previous day I had ridden 3 huge French mountain passes, all on my Pat Malone. It was indeed one of the more challenging and rewarding days I’ve had on a bike (see that story here). The question I asked next was: “How do you back-up from a day like that?” Col de la Croix de Fer – that’s how. Another 24km of badass mountain. By the end of this climb, I will have been called ‘strong’ by two separate riders, and there is no compliment I enjoy more…
To say I was a tad ginger to start the day would be underselling the fatigue I was feeling from both the effort of the day before, and the lead up to get to that day. I don’t think it was the distance, nor the total elevation gained the day before. Three passes over 2300m hurts. It hurts your legs and lungs a lot. You get out of breath really easily up there and it burns. That effort had left me feeling as flat as a tack.
As a group we drove from Valloire to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne that morning. It wasn’t that far to go, only 20 odd kilometres, but the road meanders through a fairly industrial valley with high traffic, which isn’t super pleasant, so driving was fine. The day’s racing in Le Tour would finish here, so we would get to see some live action for the first time since we had been in France. I was lacking a bit of motivation to get going, as after riding the day I had beforehand, what else could be better? But when on a cycling tour what else can you do, other than fill your bottles, throw a leg over the top tube and start pedaling? At least with repeated long days of riding it’s easy to get into a rhythm. Sure you start off sore and tired, and you wonder how the hell you are going to make it to the top of another long climb, but soon enough you loosen up. The pain in your legs dies down, the ache in your back does the same, and back to the coal face you go. Head up, relaxed shoulders, turning the pedals and looking blankly down the road. You do your level best to maintain a calm and even demeanor on the outside, but inside you switch back on and it’s go time, you are on a bike, it’s the best time.
Even then, I was content to stay with the group that day. I didn’t need to push hard, I’d done heaps of that yesterday, so I resolved to enjoy a calm day of riding up one of France’s most beautiful climbs. That intention lasted for about 5km. I was riding at the front, when we turned a sharp corner. The road reared up quite steeply at this point, and I stood up and leaned into the gradient. I realised I was pushing a little harder than I felt I wanted to, but noticed also that there was still a wheel right behind mine, so I kept pedalling. Another corner came, I stood and leaned in and pedaled harder still, and yet the wheel was still there. I realised now that it wasn’t someone from my group, I had dropped them a few hundred metres back, and was now riding with a rather unwanted tick on my rear wheel. Why do I hate these guys so much? He was probably a really nice man, he probably has a nice family, he probably gives to charity, he’s probably a good bloke to have a beer with down at the pub. So why did I hate his guts and want to crush him into the hillside with the driving force of my legs? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? It’s a game, and we all play it all the time. You take no quarter, and you give none. The reward is knowing that you didn’t back down. Plus this guy was half wheeling me, which is a cardinal sin, and he deserved what was coming to him…
So I rode faster. So he rode faster. This kept going on and on until we got to a section of 3km of road that averaged over 10%. The little stone markers on the side of the road teased us both as to the gradient to come, and distance still left in the climb. These stones sat in their spot, and goaded us to race, challenging us to see who had more in the tank at the hardest part of the climb. “He” started to breathe harder than me, noticeably so, so what choice did I have? Drop a gear and go full gas and crush him. So I did. Yeah I did. I was almost at full gas when I accelerated, but he was already there, and that step up was enough. I couldn’t hear his breathing anymore, but I dare not look. You do not want to give him the satisfaction to know that I tried. This is the essence of Rule #80 – Casually Deliberate. Never show how hard you are suffering – ever. You must always show less pain than you are actually feeling. I was crushing this man underneath the might of my strength, and it was crucial that he understood how easy it was for me to do that. It wasn’t easy, it was fucking hard. I busted my arse riding flat out up 3km of 10%+ gradient with deeply tired legs, just to beat this man. So it was with immense satisfaction that I sneaked the very slyest of glances a few minutes later, and saw an empty road behind me. I rode on a little further, and had another look, this time a bigger gaze, just in case I had missed him before, but it was a completely empty road at my wheel.
Yes. I won, you lost, the battle is over, and now we can be friends. Eventually when I stopped to wait for the group, he caught up, shook my hand, smiled and said in broken english (he was Polish) “You strong, you good bike rider.” Strong is the best compliment you can get on a bike. Strong means you have it. Strong legs, strong mind, unbendable will. I like being called strong, I like it a lot.
We rode on and it was glorious, this is yet another beautiful section of the mountains, with its own personality and soul. On paper, a lot of these climbs are similar, but when you are there, the way they speak to you is incredible. The Col de la Croix de Fer starts with dense forest, then opens up into pine and rocks, with little tunnels and a dam along the way, before eventually reaching the town of Saint Sorlin-d’Arves. We stopped here for a quick breather and a croissant. The atmosphere of the tour was palpable, there were a lot more people, and you could see the campervans lining the route up towards the top.
Getting going again was bloody hard. That stop had sucked the life out of my legs, like I had started the day all over again. Apparently racing a total stranger up the steep sections of a mountain, whilst you are already bloody tired from the preceding day’s efforts, makes it hard to keep pushing… Weird. Anyhow, two of the guides, Andrea and Ingo opened up a bit and rode off the front. I thought about chasing for a second, but I let them go, I’d had my race.
Which was a mindset that once again lasted for all of 2 minutes. By this time my legs had numbed to the pain, and I was riding harder again. This time I had guys to chase. Ingo in red, and Andrea in pink (he is Italian after all). It was like trying to catch a big fish on very light line – you can only squeeze so hard. Go hard all at once and you will lose. I didn’t have a lot to give, so I had to spend my chips wisely. Slowly but surely I began to reel the boys back in. Truth be told, they had little idea that I was chasing them, but that didn’t matter. They weren’t riding easy, and I just wanted to catch them.
All the while we were riding on a road that would barely pass as a one way street back home. A road that was somehow lined with campervans on one side, leaving bugger all road, and a long drop on the other side! So cool, so French. Now it really felt like riding in the tour. You always see the campervans on TV, and here they were, on a skinny mountain road, looking out over magnificent views of valleys, distant mountains and the town below.
The air was getting thinner again up here too. My heart was racing, my legs were genuinely sore, my lungs were burning, but I was catching those two riders. When I did catch them, Ingo stopped to take photos of the rest of the group coming up, but Andrea rode with me. I didn’t slow down, so we rode at a bullish pace up through switchbacks, amongst campervans, on skinny mountain roads. Glorious.
And then I saw the 1 kilometre marker stone. That same stone said it was 9% for that last kilometre. So my mind flashed “GO!”, and I went FULL GAS, out of the saddle, driving with everything I had. I immediately regretted this decision, literally 10 pedal strokes later I was berating myself for making that rash choice, but I didn’t slow down. I maintained a casually deliberate veneer, but I was screaming on the inside. My legs were heavy, my lungs were burning, and now my mouth was agape. Sweat was pouring down my face, but I continued the charge. There were a lot of people on the hill now, and I wanted to race them all. I’d look up at the next rider, chase them down, then chase the next. And the next. And the next. Maintain a steady rhythm, gently rock your hips, shoulders relaxed, level gaze. Keep chasing, don’t think about the pain, just chase. Chase until there aren’t any more to chase. Andrea sat behind me that whole time, not right on my wheel, just a few metres back and to the side. He wasn’t trying to chase, or to push me, he just enjoyed watching me. I couldn’t shake him, he was too strong. He had barely ridden yesterday. Every time I looked at him he was smiling! He was very much enjoying watching me put myself so deep in the hurt box just for the love of riding.
We got to 50m from the top, and he pulled level and told me that I was “So strong.” That was enough, I sat in my saddle and relaxed to the top. He put a hand on my shoulder (even when riding, Italians still talk with their hands, and have a compulsive need to make physical contact), he had a big grin and a sparkle in his eyes, and he again said I was so strong. “You always want to go Dave, push, push, harder! You are so strong!” I couldn’t help but smile too. That was stupid to go as hard as that, but I didn’t care, it was also awesome fun. Plus I got called strong for a second time in one day…
You can view my ride that day here.
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